Sunday, March 23, 2014

What is the purpose of the New Testament writings -- and how do we know it?

When people write a book or a long work, the last thing that the author says is often the conclusion, or the main point. While an author may have a number of points, there is a single basic motive, the purpose for writing, which helps us make sense of all the other points along the way. Even in a letter, the last thing said may tell us the reason for writing: it is often "Love" or "Best wishes". Generally, everything in a personal letter stems from that love or those good wishes, and they are the true reason for writing anything at all. I'd like to apply that thought to the writings of the New Testament.

The letters and the book of Revelation

Consider the closing words of the epistles in the New Testament, and the book of Revelation:
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made known, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:  To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen. - Romans 16:24-27
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen. - 1 Corinthians 16:23-24
  • The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. - 2 Corinthians 13:14
  • Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen - Galatians 6:18
  • Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen. - Ephesians 6:23-24
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. - Philippians 4:23
  • Grace be with you. Amen - Colossians 4:18
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen  - 1 Thessalonians 5:28
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. - 2 Thessalonians 3:18
  • Grace be with you. Amen. - 1 Timothy 6:21
  • The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen. - 2 Timothy 4:22
  • Grace be with you all. Amen. - Titus 3:15
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.  - Philemon 1:25
  • Grace be with you all. Amen.  - Hebrews 13:25
  • Let him know, that he who converts the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.  - James 5:20
  • Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen.  - 1 Peter 5:14
  • But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.  - 2 Peter 3:18
  • Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.  - 1 John 5:21
  • The children of your chosen sister greet you. Amen. - 2 John 1:13
  • Peace be to you. Our friends salute you. Greet the friends by name. - 3 John 1:14
  • Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,  to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. Jude 1:24-25
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.  - Revelation 22:21
We see a few writings that have a different pattern than the common pattern: some close with a caution, an encouragement, a greeting, or the praise of God. But the general pattern remains: the typical conclusion is a blessing. Specifically, it is the blessing of God's grace or favor through Jesus.

The Biblical Gospels

How do the gospels end? Let's look at each of the four Biblical gospels in turn.

Matthew ends with these words:
  • Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you. And I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen. - Matthew 28:19-20
The book does not end with the writer's personal thoughts, but what the writer says are Jesus' own final words to his disciples. Those words include instructions, but finish with a promise that he is with them. We have seen the same parting thought at the end of most of the epistles, with different forms of the blessing "The Lord be with you" or "The grace of the Lord be with you". Here we see what may be the original behind them: "I am with you." It is a blessing. It may be the blessing on which all the other blessings are based.

We will not be able to form conclusions about Mark for this purpose, since the ending text of Mark is too uncertain for us to draw conclusions based on exactly how it ended.

In Luke, the writer separates the last time Jesus spoke from the end of his own narrative. The last time Jesus spoke to them is summarized rather than quoted:
  • And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he was parted from them. - Luke 24:50-51
As I've mentioned before, Luke says Jesus left while blessing them, and it leaves room to wonder whether he stopped. 

The end of Luke shows the disciples waiting as Jesus had previous instructed them. Their wait was not an empty wait. (We may even take it as an example for ourselves, during our long wait.) 
  • And [the disciples] were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. - Luke 24:53.

If we take the last words of the Gospel of John, we have this conclusion:
  • And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. - John 21:25

Is that meant as an explanation that a writer has to stop somewhere? If we take the end of the previous chapter, which many scholars take for the ending of the original work (or the ending of the first draft before it was circulated, depending on your school of thought):
  • These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life through his name. - John 20:31

From that, we see that knowing Christ is meant to be a blessing to the reader, and so reading about his life is meant to be a blessing to the reader. It is something all of us would do well to remember when we think of telling other the good news: knowing Christ is a blessing, and showing Christ to another person should be a blessing to them.


If a writer's last words show the purpose for writing, what does it mean that most of the writings in the New Testament end with a blessing? If we are to believe the New Testament, then the purpose of the New Testament, and the purpose of Jesus, and the purpose of God is to bless us. If we take the New Testament as our starting point, then the purpose of religion is to bless us with the presence of God, as a foretaste now, and as completely fulfilled in the world to come.


Martin LaBar said...

Amen! Thank you, God, for your blessings.

Weekend Fisher said...

And thank you, Martin, for the continuing encouragement.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF